In May 2018 in San Antonio (TX) I had the great pleasure of meeting Tom Clary at the annual ITG conference. Tom is the founder / designer / master craftsman behind Clary Woodmutes, and was there to display his range of beautifully-crafted wooden trumpet mutes.
Two years on, Clary Woodmutes continue to go from strength to strength with a broad range of exquisite looking (and sounding!) mutes – I was delighted to sit down and spend some time with him (socially-distanced over Zoom of course) to chat about this great progress:
So tell us how you got started with the trumpet and making mutes.
After High School, I went to Henderson State University in Arkansas, where I was going to get a music education degree. Then I decided that I would transfer to the University of Memphis to pursue a jazz composition degree – a couple of years into that I started playing around town quite a bit. I dropped out of school to play the trumpet full-time. At that time I was playing at BB King’s blues club in the house band – for a 23 year-old that was pretty cool!
As the years went by, I met my now wife, we had a couple of children, and I decided to ‘get serious’! I went back to finish my music degree and also got a law degree. It was time for me to start thinking about other people! I practiced law for 15 years – I was still playing the trumpet at this time – at the weekends I would look for diversions or hobbies to take my mind off the work. I had always enjoyed carpentry and my dad was into construction – I started wood-working in my garage.
One day I decided to try to make a mute for my own fun, and that is how all of this started! It was just a simple wooden cone, I put corks on it and it kind of worked!
At what point did it move from just being a weekend thing?
It took a little while. I would gradually make more, and experiment along the way to get the sound right. I would take them to gigs and give some away to get feedback from different players. I learned a lot about the mutes, and then slowly I became more ambitious with it, and wanted to expand the range and figure out how to build a website!#00:10:37.18#
I wanted to make sure that they all looked pretty. Wood is beautiful, and I wanted these mutes to be as appealing to the eye as they are to the ear. It was probably 3-4 years from making my first mute to getting the website up and running. That was in February 2018.
When we met at ITG in May 2018, I got to see and try some of your straight mutes. Your range now looks huge! Has this expansion been part of a master plan, or is it more a case of making a custom order and then that making it into production?
Kind of a mixture of both. I’m the kind of person who is interested in lots of different things – I have been a trumpeter, an arranger, a sound engineer, a lawyer… I have changed careers frequently! The fact that I am 7-8 years into this mute adventure, and it still holds my interest is remarkable!! Part of that is coming up with new stuff. If I just confined myself to making straight mutes all of the time I would get super bored. My natural curiosity and need for variety drives me to always look at new things.
That must be an interesting and challenging design process with there not being many wooden mute ranges of this quality and aesthetic on the market? And not many alternatives to compare them with?
I was no acoustician or designer so everything I did was trial and error. I learnt how to work the shapes out of wood on Youtube! The design process was not exactly deliberate, ad some of it was taking an aluminium mute and analysing it, and seeing what I could apply to making a wooden mute. I just went day-by-day figuring it out.
Was there a lot of trial-and-error on the different types of wood?
Yes, that’s what made it really interesting. Learning what subtle differences the different materials make. Last week I made a comparison video of the 4 straight mutes that I make and you can really hear the subtle differences in the wood.
Were there any surprises that you encountered along the way? Any that you hoped would work but ended up in the scrap pile?!
My scrap pile is big! A lot of mutes made it in there, especially when I first started. I found it frustrating when things didn’t turn out as I intended. Along the way I have learned that it is just part of the process. I have learnt from my mistakes and bad choices!
You could say that there is no such thing as a mistake if you have ended up learning from it?
Very true! I think that I have also learned a lot about myself through this whole process – not thinking that you always have to be right or have immediate success. Life is a process!
How have you found building relationships with trumpeters through all of this?
It has been great. I have met a lot of really wonderful people, at shows like ITG and NTC, and also folks reaching out to me on the internet. It is wonderful, I feel extremely lucky to meet all these people and communicate with them. That has been one of the biggest positives – people all the time will suggest things and want to participate in the process. This is great for me, and I also want to get as much feedback on every mute as possible so that they can keep getting better.
As things get busier, how do you juggle everything now?
When I was still trying to practice law, and write music, and play the trumpet… that was challenging. Law school was the point where I really learnt how to manage my time. Ever since this pandemic hit, it has been easier to focus more on what is important. The trumpet playing and music writing has obviously disappeared, and I have had the chance to focus just on the trumpet mutes during this period. It has been positive in this way.
I will get up and drink some coffee with my family, then go into my workshop and make mutes for the day. And about 5pm I will come out and cook some dinner. The pandemic has had a horrible and devastating effect on the world, so it is important to try to acknowledge some positives too.
So what’s next?!
I found this really cool plywood online – thin veneered layers that are sandwiched together – with each layer dyed a different colour. I ordered some of this, and made up some mutes that look really great. I am going to do some limited edition stuff.
Visit woodmutes.com to find out more and to see the full range of great mutes that are available.